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Delaware State, historically African American, bucks the trend for many colleges by attracting more students

Delaware State University is an exception to the Darwinian trend that pits public universities against one another, as well as private colleges, for a diminishing pool of high school grads.

Students at Delaware State University, which plans to expand to 5,000 students in 2019-20, at a time when Philadelphia's historically-black Cheney State University is struggling
Students at Delaware State University, which plans to expand to 5,000 students in 2019-20, at a time when Philadelphia's historically-black Cheney State University is strugglingRead moreDSU

Despite the decline in student populations that threatens so many Northeastern colleges, Delaware State University, a historically black school in Dover, last week reported "record-breaking enrollment" of 4,872 for the current academic year. Those numbers were up almost 5 percent from last year's 4,648 and close to its 2020 goal of 5,000-plus.

That's a sharp contrast with Pennsylvania's historically black public university, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, in Delaware County, where enrollment fell 38 percent to just 469 students this year, as my colleague Susan Snyder reported last month.

Why are DSU leaders' efforts paying off, while Cheyney is nearly on life support? One factor cited by leaders at both schools: Delaware State is the only four-year public university in Delaware. (The larger University of Delaware, like Pennsylvania's Penn State, Temple, Pitt, and Lincoln, is a privately run school that gets limited state support.) The Democrats — who rely on the state's African American voters to stay in power — don't give DSU, or any school, all the millions they seek. But the school gets a respectful hearing and has benefited from state scholarships and student support programs geared toward first-generation college students.

By contrast, most of Pennsylvania's 14 state universities are struggling to keep up enrollment in a commonwealth where young families have been leaving for decades and the average age is now above 40 (it's slightly lower in Delaware). Pennsylvania is home to 13 million people, Delaware to fewer than one million. Pennsylvania lawmakers have ignored warnings and studies that pointed toward consolidating state colleges into a smaller, stronger system. Compared with Delaware, Pennsylvania appears to be leaving small schools like Cheyney to sink.

Enrollment in the Pennsylvania state college system fell 4 percent last year, dropping below 100,000 for the first time since 2001, part of a Darwinian trend that pits public schools against one another, as well as private colleges, for a smaller pool of high school graduates. (West Chester University in wealthy Chester County has been the healthiest Pennsylvania state school in recent years — one of just two where enrollment rose last year. Cheyney supporters have resisted past calls to combine with West Chester's nearby campus.)

DSU has had its own issues in the recent past — management turnover and aging facilities. But its trajectory lately is up. "It is a benefit to us" that Delaware is a small state and DSU faces less competition, spokesperson Carlos Holmes told me.

Could Cheyney turn around, if Pennsylvania made the school more of a priority? "You can't compare them, the situation is so different," Jeff Jones, executive director of enrollment management at Cheyney and a past men's basketball coach (1988-94) at DSU, told me. "Back when I was there, when Delaware State went through the same issues in terms of funding, the entire university went to the state capitol to ask for funds." They got a hearing, because "Delaware State is a flagship institution for the state of Delaware." It's hard to imagine any one of the Pennsylvania state schools achieving that kind of understanding — they are too many, he said.

State support wouldn't mean much without institutional leadership. "We have continued to innovate, and have become much more strategic in how we attract and retain students," said Wilma Mishoe, who was named DSU president by the board she used to head earlier this year. (Her father, mathematician Luna Mishoe, headed DSU from 1960 to 1987.)

Mishoe has high expectations for Antonio Boyle, her vice president for "Strategic Enrollment Management," who brings admissions, registration, records, and tuition accounts "under a single leader." Already, freshman retention rates have reached 73 percent, "the highest average in the university's history." The biology and chemistry research budgets are up. They're planning  to obtain more aircraft for the aviation program.

To help more prospective students handle college, DSU's "Early College High School" and "Summer Bridge" programs prep applicants, and Delaware's state-funded "Inspire" scholarship program (for students who keep a 2.75 grade-point average and do community service) has boosted in-state freshman enrollment, Mishoe says.

The school also offers its campus as a base for Delaware high school science fairs and other activities that help bring potential students from all communities onto its campus near the state capitol. DSU has drawn more applicants from the growing metro Washington area. (The nearby Delaware shore is the prime summer beach ground for Washington, just as the southern Jersey Shore targets Philly.) And DSU has joined a program recruiting students among the "Dreamers," children of undocumented immigrants.

"We are historically African American, but we also have quite a few white students, Latino students, Asian students, and students who don't want to be put in an ethnic box," DSU spokesperson Holmes told me. "Diversity is part of our core values. We're very proud of that." He added: "We're rooting for Cheyney. But higher education is a tough game."